Club Cricket Conference

Tuesday, 9th August 2022

Guildford CC groundsman: the perfect pitch

One of the very best venues on the first class circuit is Guildford CC's Woodbridge Road ground, first used by Surrey for a championship game in 1938. The annual festival is going strong, and since 1996 head groundsman Bill Clutterbuck has been the driving force behind pitches of consistently high quality.

Laurence Gale MSc, editor of Pitchcare Magazine, examines the detail and learns a few tips.

My visit to the ground was to support Bill Clutterbuck in the delivery of his first Pitchcare Cricket Pitch Maintenance course. Bill has been recruited to deliver the Lantra accredited courses on the preparation and maintenance of cricket facilities.

With the sun shining, a rarity this summer, Bill's presentation was centred around autumn renovations. Seven local groundsmen were in attendance, and it was immediately apparent that Bill was more than prepared; virtually every bit of kit was out of his shed ready to be used in practical demonstrations.

"The playing characteristics of the square, and how it will perform, is down to having a good foundation to play on," explained Bill. "A poorly executed end of season renovation will lead to problems the following season; not getting enough debris out of the pitch is fatal, and may lead to longer lasting issues."

The first thing Bill did was take a core sample from the square. "To see what is happening in the soil profile is crucial to understanding the needs and maintenance requirements of your square," said Bill.

"A 100-150mm depth core sample will allow you to see a complete picture of the condition of your soil profile, the depth of any thatch, root depth, soil breaks, layering and moisture content. It's a vitally important operation."

Bill then went on to explain how he undertakes his own renovations. What was interesting to note was that Bill had already renovated two thirds of his square during the back end of the playing season, leaving him with just six tracks to complete.

"The benefits are twofold," he explained. "Firstly, I am not left with a massive job at the end of the season. I'll renovate as soon as a block of wickets are finished with. So this, secondly, makes good use of more favourable weather conditions. Perhaps not this summer, but you know what I mean!"

"The success of any square is down to planning; identifying what matches are to be played on what wickets," said Bill. "Like most cricket groundsmen, I'll look to get as many games as I can out of a wicket. On average, this will be somewhere around three-five games, depending on the standard of cricket being played. These plans are clearly set out with end of season renovations in mind."

While on this subject, Bill was able to demonstrate the art of pitch repairs, making it look a fairly simple activity to undertake. His assistant Jonny Nolan had prepared a loam and grass seed mix and was wetting it down to a make a paste to fill in bowlers' footmarks.

The job was carried out in several stages, making sure that the area he wanted to repair was sufficiently wet, adding the mix in layers and tamping down using his heels, finally masking it off with dust from the surface. "The seed will germinate within seven to 10 days," confirmed Jonny.

Bill also advocates the benefits of aerating the square on a regular basis. "I use an old Sisis drum spiker, as often as I can in the winter months to help keep the profile free draining and get air around the roots. Depending on the weather, I will usually soak the square to soften it up prior to any aeration, and get it into a good condition to start renovations."

"The first task of any renovation is to mow down the square to remove as much vegetation as possible," explained Bill. "I'll then scarify in three directions, clearing up all the debris after each operation using brushes and rotary mowers. It is essential to leave a clean surface. Going in three directions helps create a decent seed bed. I then go over the whole area with the Blec seeder, which, again, puts seed in direct contact with the soil."

"I then topdress with Ongar Surrey loam, putting on a very light dressing of only three bags per strip. This is applied using a shovel. This material is then worked in using a trulute, and dragbrushed." The reason Bill only puts three bags per strip is because that's all he needs. "The wicket does not suffer from poor levels, and I'm not keen on smothering the existing grass."

One of the reasons why Bill only needs to scarify in three directions, and apply only three bags per strip, is down to the ongoing work he carries out throughout the playing season. "I regularly verticut the square and strips to remove unwanted lateral growth, along with my 10-14 day pitch preparations. That keeps on top of thatch levels so, come the autumn, there is very little debris to worry about."

"Once all the work has been completed, I will apply a pre-seed fertiliser using a pedestrian cyclone spreader, ensuring it is calibrated to deliver an accurate dosage. I then cover the area with a germination sheet to speed up germination whilst, at the same time, protecting the seed from any pigeons."

Bill then went on to talk about maintenance and appropriate renovations that clubs should be doing to improve their outfields. "Far too many clubs neglect their outfields," stated Bill. "They believe that all they need to do is cut it, but it is often the outfield that causes the most injuries to players. The surface is often too wet, too dry, bumpy and weed infested."

Last year Bill and Jonny oversaw a complete overhaul of their outfield. The work was completed in house by staff from Guildford Borough Council, owners of the ground. The only expenditure was on the hire of plant. It has made a huge difference, he says.

Prior to cultivation, all vegetation and thatch was thoroughly removed using a tractor mounted Koro Field Topmaker. After the thatch and vegetation had been removed, the playing surface was tilled and levelled out using an Amazone scarifier. It was then overseeded with a mixture of 35 per cent Delaware Lolium perenne, 35 per cent Platinum Lolium perenne and 30 per cent Maxima1 Festuca rubra ssp rubra, planted at a rate of 20 grammes per square metre using a Charterhouse disk seeder in three directions with a fourth direction added the following spring. An application of 6:0:12 NPK granular organic fertiliser was applied after sowing to help encourage growth as an autumn winter feed.

The following spring, under the direction of Bill, an application of Headland Solufeed 15:0:25+FE, with Seamac ProTurf soluble liquid fertiliser at half rate, was tank mixed with Headland Extend 46:0:0 soluble liquid fertiliser at half rate and applied by Peter Marshall of Complete Weed Control.

"The results have been tremendous," says Bill, "with it now looking and performing so much better, after the extremely dry spring initially held it back. We had the travelling sprinkler going day and night, but things didn't really improve until the onset of a wet second half of the summer."

Before the day finished, Bill was keen to explain his methods of pre-season rolling. "I don't use the union jack method in pre season rolling, but roll exclusively across the line of play. This is done with the rollers travelling forwards only and breaking the square into two halves similar to the method of mowing in bays. The rollers are driven quite fast so that the square is covered in about 15-20 minutes, the two halves are then rolled in the opposite direction. Rolling is started walking the 42-inch outfield mower, ballasted using a few loam bags, moving on to the Auto Roller when a firmer surface has been achieved. This operation is carried out several times during March and early April when conditions allow, with periodic aeration still taking place."

"Once the playing season is underway, I'll roll wicket to wicket during normal pitch preparation. Quite often, I'll roll when there is dew on the square, or after rain, to incorporate the moisture in the soil profile without artificial watering, which I rarely use in pitch preparation."

With the formalities of the training day completed, Bill relates some of his favourite moments from his years at Guildford.

"I think the match that stands out is the Martin Bicknell one that everyone locally talks about. In 2000, Surrey were playing Leicestershire. It was looking like a good match at tea on the second day, but Bicknell came in to bowl and reduced Leicestershire to 32-6 after the break, and the game was over as a contest. He had already taken eight wickets in the first innings, and he took another eight in the second innings, I think everyone remembers that one."

"Another match that comes to mind is the game against Middlesex in 1998. Both sides were bowled out on the first day, with 20 wickets falling on what looked a good pitch - the ball swung and the batting was very indifferent."

"The main batting performance that stands out is from a few years ago, when Somerset were here, and Justin Langer got his highest first class score of 342, which is also the highest first class score on this ground. For a batsmen of his standing to achieve his highest score on this ground, on one of my wickets, was very memorable."

"An innings that I thought was fantastic was from Justin Kemp, who was playing for Kent during a run chase here six years ago. He scored 47 not out in very short time, and won the game for Kent at about 6pm on the fourth and final day. It was a very explosive innings - he hit sixteen in the penultimate over, off the bowling of Jimmy Ormond, from the Pavilion End, and he put the ball in the road about three times. Kent were chasing 232 off about 35 overs to win the match."

I asked Bill what makes Woodbridge Road so special? "It's the intimacy of the place. Even with a smallish crowd in, there is an intimacy and immediacy about the game. When County Championship games are being played at the Kia Oval, these spectators would be lost in the ground. Here, you are on top of the players, and the players love it, they respond to the intimacy. I think county cricket is just made for this sort of atmosphere."

All in all, it had been a very informative day for everyone who attended. The condition of the square and outfield was a fitting testament to the work and dedication of Bill and Jonny.

Read more articles in 'cricket' by Laurence Gale MSc